By Taylor Marvin
On November 22nd Argentines will go to the polls to elect a new president. This presidential runoff, which follows an inconclusive first round held on October 25th, marks the end of an era for Argentina. Since 2003 Argentina has been led by the husband and wife duo of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with Cristina elected in 2007 and again in 2011. (Widely thought to aspire to return to the presidency, Néstor suffered an untimely death in 2010.) With Kirchner constitutionally barred from a third term, many hope the election of a new Argentine president is also an opportunity to wind down Kirchner’s aggressive rhetoric about the disputed Falkland Islands.
Argentina has long claimed the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas and officially views British sovereignty as “a blatant exercise of 19th-Century colonialism,” in Kirchner’s words. Despite earlier tentative steps towards a negotiated solution to the dispute, in 1982 the Argentine military seized the Islands. In the midst of economic stagnation and its murderous “Dirty War” the ruling military junta hoped that a quick victory would boost the regime’s domestic popularity, but seriously misjudged UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to fight. As Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins write in their history The Battle for the Falklands, while the UK came far closer to military disaster than is often realized, British forces eventually retook the Falklands. The war left 225 British servicemen, three Falkland civilians, and around 650 Argentines dead, as well as thousands of soldiers scarred mentally and physically by the brutal conflict.
Throughout her tenure Cristina Kirchner has stressed the Falklands issue, arguing that the UK illegally took possession of the Islands in 1833. Kirchner has repeatedly called for dialogue over the Islands’ status in her UN addresses (though not this year), and tied the issue to UN Security Council reform (though Argentina opposes fellow Mercosur member Brazil’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat). In 2012 Kirchner “ambushed” British PM David Cameron at the UN with a letter about the issue, and two years later Kirchner commemorated the 32nd anniversary of Argentina’s invasion by introducing a new banknote featuring a map of the Falklands. The recent discovery of oil off the Falklands also gave new impetus to Argentina’s push, and Argentina has threatened to sue British oil companies involved in exploration off the Islands – despite the fact that low oil prices are challenging the offshore oil’s commercial viability.
The ongoing presidential election has centered around economic issues and the legacy of Kirchnerismo, as Kevin Lees chronicles, and despite leaving office Kirchner is expected to remain politically powerful, as Simon Romero and Jonathan Gilbert write. (Indeed, Kirchner is thought to hope to return to the presidency in 2019). But as the Week reports, both of the candidates competing in the runoff election have taken comparatively moderate stances on the Falklands. While insisting that the Islands are rightly Argentina’s, opposition center-right candidate and current Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri wants to improve relations with the UK and “has also signalled that he would abolish the government role of Falklands Secretary, or Malvinas Secretary, created by Kirchner in 2013.” Similarly, the Independent’s David Usborne reports that Kirchner’s preferred successor and Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli, who narrowly won the first round, is also expected to “seek to adopt a fresh and less belligerent tone in the hope of bringing Britain to the table.” Despite the wide enthusiasm for the Malvinas cause in Argentina, some see Kirchner’s combativeness as counterproductive, as Usborne’s excellent story notes. “Everyone has the sensation that Argentina gets into these quarrels for no reason … and that’s true with the Malvinas,” says Marcos Novaro, an Argentine think tank director quoted by Usborne. Others disagree, and acknowledge that there little room for mutual reconciliation between Argentina and the UK regardless of Kirchner’s rhetoric.
Whatever their reasons, Macri and Scioli’s apparent moderation is a recognition of reality. After the Falkland Islanders overwhelmingly approved continued British sovereignty in a 2013 referendum it is difficult to see any hope for a diplomatic agreement that meaningfully cedes sovereignty to Argentina — though it was the invasion more than anything else that hardened the British position. For its part, Argentina views the “imported” Islanders’ self-determination as irrelevant.
But beyond diplomatic considerations, Argentina’s lack of diplomatic leverage is compounded by its limited ability to militarily threaten the Islands today. Decades of financial crises have left Argentine military forces decrepit: its aircraft are “barely serviceable” and as of at least 2012 the Navy’s submarines rarely went to sea, falling far short of their required training time. Argentina has vague plans to refurbish its decaying Air Force with new jet fighters but the government’s financial challenges mean that any purchase is likely a way off,* and the UK has the ability to veto most Western fighter sales. These financial challenges are compounded by the low priority Argentina’s civilian leaders assign the military. As a 2014 report by Rowan Allport notes, Kirchner’s “nationalistic tone should not be interpreted as a pro-military stance,” and “the Nestor/Cristina Kirchner era has seen the military fall to near the bottom of Argentina’s spending priorities list.”
However, budget cuts have curtailed Britain’s military capabilities as well, and raised fears that the UK could not longer retake the Falklands. The number of British combat-ready aircraft is falling, and today the UK does not operate an aircraft carrier able to embark fixed-wing aircraft, which would be critical in any renewed conflict over the Falklands. This absence “creates a window of opportunity for Argentina,” in Defense Industry Daily’s words, but “one that will slam shut decisively around 2020” when the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers enter service, though when the ships’ advanced F-35B fighter aircraft will actually be reliably combat-ready is uncertain. However, the UK’s nuclear fast attack submarines would already complicate any Argentine effort to take and hold the Falklands, and would quickly isolate any Argentine invasion force. Indeed, during the Falklands War after a British submarine sank the cruiser ARA General Belgrano Argentina kept its single carrier, the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, in port, forcing land-based Argentine fighter aircraft to fight at the very limit of their range. The RAF also bases a handful of advanced fighter aircraft on the Falklands, another major barrier to a successful invasion.
Despite Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s unstable style of governance she did not choose to resume hostilities, which now seem even more unlikely through 2019. In addition to Argentina’s military weaknesses, recently events have also dramatically illustrated the downsides of even nearly bloodless territorial annexation. From a military standpoint Russia’s seizure of Crimea was a complete success, but drew widespread condemnation and economic sanctions that have severely damaged the Russian economy. While the two cases are not directly comparable – many of Argentina’s major trading partners would not impose retaliatory sanctions – an invasion’s best possible outcome could still bring diplomatic and economic costs not worth the gain. Pressing the Islas Malvinas issue may be a useful political tool – and a sincere grievance for many Argentines – but its use rests far more on the personality and priorities of Argentina’s president than the actual chances of realizing Argentina’s claim.
Update (11/18/2015): Or maybe not – according to MercoPress (originally via Defesa Aérea & Naval) Clarin reports that the Kfir deal has been frozen, and that there is disagreement among senior Argentine Air Force officers over the aircraft, most of which reportedly are not equipped with radar.